Saturday, May 21, 2005

Festividades del Señor del Gran Poder

Today is the Festival of Our Lord of the Great Power, an annual event here in La Paz. It started at six in the morning, just one block from my hotel, with a series of marching bands...which means by the time I woke up I was already sick of it. But I maintained optimism and went to check it out. My Swiss-resident readers may be saying "annual festival?...marching bands?...starts early in the morning? Sounds like Fasnacht!" And in fact, this festival does have some striking similarities to Lucerne´s Mardi Gras celebration, which takes place in February. Luckily it´s not freezing cold here as it usually is in Lucerne during Fasnacht. The biggest difference, as far as I can tell, was that this festival is actually more organized than Fasnacht.

Yes, I would never have guessed that anything in Bolivia would be more organized than something in Switzerland--after all, this is the country where an 8:30 bus can wait until 10:15 to leave because it doesn´t have enough passengers, and then stop or gas on the way out of town. But it is so. The main part of the fiesta was the parade of marching bands and dancers in elaborate costumes winding their way down all the main streets. These main streets were completely blocked off, so that unless you paid for a seat you couldn´t see the parade. The first seat I checked out was 10 Bolivianos (about $1.25) but I´m cheap, and that´s expensive for Bolivia (my hotel room costs $3.75) so I continued looking. Of course, the seat I wound up in had a worse view and cost 15 Bs. In order to cross the parade route, you had to wait in line at one of several police checkpoints, and cross the street during a break between dancing groups. Anyway, I sat in the sun for a while watching the parade go by. The costumes were fabulously elaborate, but heavy, and with the direct sun I couldn´t imagine being inside one--I even saw one dancer pass out from the heat!

The couple sitting next to me told me that the costumes and dances had to do with the conquest by the Spanish, how they brought slaves to Bolivia from Africa and how they were eventually defeated (at least I think that´s what they said). Apart from one group which clearly had a slavery-Africa theme, to me the rest just seemed to me like groups playing traditional music, wearing traditional costumes and dancing traditional dances, with the occasional person in a zebra costume carrying public service announcements ("Enjoy the festival with control...don´t get drunk" or "You too can be a Gran Poder. Don´t beat your wife"). But although I suppose I would have to be Bolivian to really understand all the symbolism and cultural images involved, I appreciated and enjoyed the festival nonetheless...for a little while, anyway. All that traditional marching band music can get a little tiring. After a couple of hours I was suffering from trombone overload and had to take refuge in my hotel room.